Opinion

Maradona's stern warning was never heeded by a greedy game

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No adjective has been spared to describe Diego Maradona's extraordinary career after he rose from the slums of Villa Fiorito in greater Buenos Aires to become one of the finest players in the history of the game.

The Argentine legend, who was never far from controversy, shocked the world for the last time this week when he left us at the age of 60. 

The tumultuous life of a very normal person who possessed a compendium of skills that were anything but normal had come to an end. 

For the first time, maybe, he went quietly when he died in his sleep from a heart attack. 

Maradona was many things - not all of them flattering.

In a way, he was also the quintessential enigma because when he had the world at his feet in the second part of the 1980s, he inexplicably took his eyes off the ball and fell victim to the multitude of temptations that can ruin anyone - even the best footballer on the planet.

Football lovers worldwide were mystified - even frustrated - as they failed to understand why he would throw away the kind of career that millions of children would dream of.

Yet when I had the privilege of a proper chat with him a week before Argentina faced Australia in the first leg of a playoff for a place in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the Argentine hero came across as an affable person with a wise head on his broad shoulders that carried his country’s football team for a long time and who cared a lot about his profession and his fellow professionals.

A slimmed-down Maradona was preparing for his comeback game after a 15-month suspension for cocaine use and, since he was clubless at the time, he had the luxury of coming to Sydney ahead of the bulk of the Argentine squad who had club commitments.

You could go straight to players those days and it was entirely up to them if they wanted to talk or not.

Maradona had just finished his dinner at the Holiday Inn (now Crowne Plaza) in Coogee in October 1993 when, without prior notice, I approached him and bluntly asked him for an interview on behalf of my newspaper, The Daily Telegraph

"Yes, certainly," Maradona said warmly.

What we talked about back then will resonate with all those who claim that the corporate world has hijacked the game of the people, which is probably why many fans around the world feel that their sport has lost its romance and true meaning.

"The game has become too big with too many interests attached," Maradona said in fluent Italian.

"There is too much money at stake and too much pressure on footballers. It's not fun any more.

"We cannot continue to destroy the game."

Clearly, his warning from 27 years ago has not been heeded because self-interest and greed - particularly in Europe - continue to rule today's game.

Maradona, who might have been attempting to play some mind games in view of his pending return, also spoke about the lack of protection afforded to top players who have the ability to thrill the crowds with their numbers of high class.

Maradona himself had been the target of unscrupulous defenders ever since he burst onto the scene as an Argentinos Juniors striker in the late 1970s.

In fact, as a Barcelona player in September 1983, he had his ankle broken after an X-rated tackle by Athletic Bilbao's Andoni Goikoetxea, who would become known as the 'Butcher of Bilbao'.

Maradona said football's gifted players were being systematically kicked out of the game.

"It's not just me but other great strikers like Marco van Basten have not been allowed to play good football," he said.

"Coaches these days are putting on the park six or seven defenders with the sole intention of destroying the skilful players.

"These coaches should be promoting attacking players who are capable of putting the ball in the net."

Maradona was also seen as a true patriot who stood up for his country. He loved nothing more than playing for the 'Albiceleste', which is another reason he was adored by 34 million Argentines.

He had no qualms about coming to the national team's rescue when it missed out on direct qualification for the 1994 World Cup after a humiliating 5-0 defeat against Colombia.

As the two-leg playoff with Australia beckoned, he answered the call for help.

"Whoever wears the Argentine jersey - not just me but any player - has a big duty towards his country and I felt the responsibility to play," he said.

Maradona managed to somehow steady the listing Argentine ship in the two games against the Socceroos and lead them to the finals.

The Argentine however was sensationally sent home after failing a drug test in the United States, his playing career in tatters.

Yet when he was at his peak, he was often compared with other all-time greats like Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. As always with Maradona matters, public opinion was divided.

So where did he fit in the game's pantheon?

"I wouldn't say I was the best but I'd like to think I was a different type of player," he explained.

"You see, I have a different feel for the game because I always believed football should be played with fun and without too much drama and pressure."

Maradona could do very little about the dramas and pressures that followed him wherever he went, but he had lots of fun along the way.

And he certainly was different.